Dallas Morning News

"Suburbs Should Become More Pedestrian Friendly"

My son is now 16 and is soon to receive his driver's license. Remember the thrill? No longer having to wait for a ride, he can easily drive across town to see friends or go to a movie. New found freedom and independence at last. Youths and cars, it's an image thing.

But as we become adults, our relationship with our cars changes to a strange combination of freedom and dependence. Our mobility has become almost entirely dependent on the automobile, so it is no surprise that the shape and form of our cities reflect that dependence. Throughout the history of civilization, standards of measurement like the cubit and the foot have been based on the human body. Today, our yardstick is the car. We measure movement in terms of minutes and miles, wide streets, comfortable turning radius and convenient parking. We like plenty of space and we don't mind being spread out. It is generally a pretty good life for most of us. We can go anywhere at anytime.

But our relationship with the car will change once again - as we each become old. Take my uncle who is 85 and lives in a north Dallas suburb. He is healthy, plays tennis, and loves to dance; he probably has 10 years of active living ahead of him. But his driving skills have dulled and he has trouble coping with fast moving traffic. His daughters think he should quit driving - it's not good for his health. According to the National Safety Council, an older person is more likely to suffer fatal injuries in a motor vehicle crash. Traffic death rates for the elderly are rapidly rising, according to transportation experts.

Indeed, what is really good for my uncle is walking. He should walk and he should be able to get whatever he needs by walking. Not only will he retain freedom, but also the exercise will lengthen his life.

Regrettably, our cities and its suburbs are not kind to the elderly who do not drive. It is nearly impossible to walk into or out of the new maze-like subdivisions whose only concern is to deny vehicular through-traffic. Even if you try to walk, when you finally reach the gates of the neighborhood, you are faced with another half mile to the intersection and the daunting task of crossing a 100-foot wide arterial before the lights change. Neighborhood businesses are separated from the residents by fences and parking lots. On foot, it can easily take 45 minutes to reach a convenience store, a church, a barber or a park.

We can become trapped in the labyrinth of such neighborhoods only to be rescued by retirement or assisted living centers, similarly gated and embedded in the same urban structure. Wouldn't it be better if our cities were designed so that we could grow old in the homes we love and still have the essential freedom, services, friends and family within walking distance? Wouldn't it be better if our children could walk to grandma's house?

Hal Box, former Dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture, once said that a good neighborhood is one where you can get a five-minute Popsicle (or a newspaper, or cup of coffee). When you think about it, if a neighborhood is good for kids and old people, it's good for everyone. All it takes is an open street pattern like those found in older neighborhoods and enough density to support neighborhood businesses.

The next time you fly over Houston, Dallas or Corpus Christi, look down at the vast tangle of cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets with houses and large pristine yards and think about what this growth pattern will ultimately mean. There are those who believe that this urban sprawl will emerge as a central issue of our time. It is not easy to remake the layout of a city, but if we think now, we can give our children a better shot at growing old with freedom and joie de vivre. Think about how it will be to live in your own neighborhood without a car. Go for a stroll while you ponder. Buy a Popsicle.